Folk art is a great source of inspiration for creating graphic patterns thanks to its often simple, repeated shapes and motifs. In this tutorial, we’ll be basing our motifs on those found in Hungarian folk art, particularly embroidery—just search Google or Pinterest for “Hungarian folk art”, and you’ll find a bevy of beautiful examples. Some of the most celebrated forms of folk embroidery from this tradition originated in the Kalocsa and Matyo regions of Hungary.
According to Folk-Art-Hungary.com, "flowers and leaves, sometimes a bird or a spiral ornament, are the principal decorative themes" of the style of folk art you can find today, which first became common in the mid-1700s. These motifs are applied to traditional arts and crafts like embroidery, ceramics, and murals.
This is the style that will serve as inspiration for our pattern. First we'll do some research and make some sketches, and then we'll create and arrange some colorful florals, turning them into a seamless pattern—all in Adobe Illustrator. This technique could be used with any style of folk art that strikes your fancy: Scandinavian, Mexican, or Polish, to name a few.
Before we get started, you’ll need this set of Illustrator art brushes for creating the leaves and vines. For more assets you can use in folk art-inspired designs, take a browse through Envato Market.
1. Do Some Prep Work
First, you’ll want to choose your motifs. I started out by doing some research on the style of folk art I was interested in, and then sketched out some of the shapes I liked. If you want to do the same, your sketches don’t have to be perfect or polished; they’re just so you have some ideas ready to go when it’s time to start building your pattern in Illustrator.
Next, open up a new document in Illustrator. To make it easier to create a symmetrical design, we’ll use a square artboard to arrange the repeating part of our pattern. The exact dimensions aren’t important, as long as it’s square.
Now, you may want to prepare the two resources we’ll be using for our pattern: the color palette and brushes.
You can choose your own colors if you like, or copy the ones you see here:
Make sure to add the colors to your Swatches panel for easy access later.
You can grab the brush set from Envato Market if you haven’t already. I chose it because one of the brushes is perfect for drawing the teardrop-shaped leaves that are a big motif in this style of folk art, and will really help speed up the illustration process.
2. Create Your Pattern Elements
If you started with some sketches, use those as a guide to start creating the pieces of your pattern. If you prefer to improvise straight in Illustrator, that’s fine too. We’ll be primarily using the Ellipse Tool, Pen Tool, and the Paintbrush Tool (for the art brushes linked above).
Start building some elements off to the side of your artboard—mine are primarily flowers, vines, and leaves. We won’t arrange them at this point; first we want to gather together some pieces to work with.
To get you started, I’ll walk you through the process of creating the big tulip-style flower that’s the centerpiece of this pattern.
First, we’ll create the center petal:
- Using the Ellipse Tool, draw a long, narrow oval.
- With the oval selected, switch to the Direct Selection Tool and click on the topmost anchor point. In the Anchor Point menu bar that appears at the top your screen, select the first Convert button to change the point to a corner. Do the same for the bottom anchor point.
- To split the shape in half, use the Line Segment Tool to draw a line down the center. Make sure to hold down Shift as you do to keep it straight. Then select both the shape and the line and go to Window > Pathfinder > Divide.
- To change the color, you’ll have to use the Direct Selection Tool to select one half at a time.
Now use the Pen Tool to draw some more petals. If your flower is going to be symmetrical like mine (it has the same shapes both right and left of center), just create one side and then copy and paste to duplicate it, going to Object > Transform > Reflect to flip the orientation vertically.
To layer the petals, use the commands found in the Object > Arrange menu (Send Backward, Send to Back, etc.).
To create the vine with leaves that curves beneath the flower, we’ll need to break out our brushes. But first, let’s get the basic shape laid out:
- Use the Pen Tool to draw a line that starts at the flower’s center, curving upward and then down a bit (similar to the shape of the bottom petals). The line should end slightly past the width of the flower.
- Duplicate the line, and then go to Object > Transform > Reflect and select Vertical, just as we did to complete the flower. Align the two halves, and then switch to the Direct Selection Tool, clicking and dragging your cursor over the spot where the two lines join to select both endpoints. Hit Command/Control-J to join them and create a single line.
- Select the line, and then open up the Vector Art Brushes set and apply Art Brush 15 to give it a nice, tapered look.
To give our vine some leaves, switch to Art Brush 19 and select the Paintbrush Tool. Begin drawing leaves that increase in size as you move toward the center. You want to start off with a small stroke weight like 0.75 pt, increasing it as you move down the line.
And remember, to save time on symmetrical elements, you can start by creating half of the object, and then duplicating and reflecting it for the other half. This will be a technique we’ll use throughout the tutorial.
As a side note, this particular brush set can only be used with a stroke color of black. So you’ll have to select everything and go to Object > Expand Appearance before you can apply a color to any element you’ve created using the brushes. In this step, after expanding the appearance, you will also be able to trim the pointed ends of the leaves with the Eraser Tool if any are sticking up above the curved line.
Now that you’ve seen some of the processes that go into creating these types of shapes, it’s time to create some more to fill up your pattern. The same tools we've been using so far—the Ellipse Tool, Pen Tool, and brushes—along with shortcuts like reflecting will all come in handy as you build your elements.
Here’s what I ended up with:
3. Arrange Your Pattern Elements
Now that you have some motifs ready to go, you can start arranging them on your artboard. Don’t let any of the pieces hang over the edges of the artboard at this point—we’ll get into the reasons for this a few steps later. Keep in mind that what you end up with on your artboard will be the part that repeats to create a seamless pattern.
Start placing the elements you created on your artboard. You’ll have a much easier time of it if you first group all the pieces of each element together (click and drag to select, and then hit Command/Control-G).
Feel free to play around with the arrangement of your elements—try rotating them, scaling them up or down, changing the colors for a more balanced look, etc. I’d suggest positioning your largest elements first; you can always create some small bits later to fill in any gaps.
I’ve decided to go with a mirrored arrangement where some of the elements repeat on each side of our centerpiece flower, but you can do whatever looks good to you. If you’re also going to do a mirrored design, start by arranging only one half, and then simply duplicate and reflect for the other half.
Below, the image on the left is my result from arranging my largest elements down the center (these won’t appear again on the artboard) and on one side (these will be reflected on the other side). The image on the right is what it would look like with the other side filled in by duplicating and reflecting the first side.
You’ll notice that the artboard still looks pretty empty, especially near the bottom. Our goal is to have a foundation for our pattern that looks balanced and visually interesting, but we’re not quite there yet. So that means it’s time to place more of our elements and/or create new ones to fill in the gaps.
Still try to avoid letting any of your elements cross over the edges of your artboard; we’ll address this in the next step.
Here’s what we have with all the big empty spaces filled in:
4. Create a Seamless Pattern
Now we’ll prepare to convert our design into a seamless pattern.
There’s more than one way you can do this in Illustrator. If you’re using CS6 or CC, you can try out the Pattern Options panel to automate some of this process. But if you’re using an earlier version of Illustrator or would just like a bit more control, the technique we’re about to run through is another good option.
With this technique, the edges of your design are very important—which is why we’ve left them alone up to now. If you don’t get the elements at the edges of your artboard aligned just right, your pattern won’t turn out.
While the center of your artboard should be pretty well filled in by now, there are probably some gaps around the edges. This means there would also be gaps in the middle of your pattern, since what’s inside your artboard is going to tile together like square puzzle pieces to create a pattern.
We don't want that, so let’s get started filling those in. The only thing you have to be aware of is that the top and bottom edges have to correspond, as do the right and left edges. This is what enables the pattern to repeat seamlessly. I’ll show you how that works…
First, place an item on one edge. For example, I’ll place some shapes between the three flowers at the top that extend past the artboard edge:
Now since these cross over the edge of the artboard's top boundary, they also have to correspond with the bottom edge—that is, the part of the shape that is outside the artboard at the top must be inside the artboard at the bottom. If that sounds confusing in words, it isn’t in practice.
First, group the two new shapes together (Command/Control-G). Copy them and Paste in Front (Command/Control-F). Don’t just paste and drag into place, because it’s important that the copied shapes are in exactly the same place as the originals.
Move the copy by going to Object > Transform > Move and typing in the length of your artboard into the box labeled Vertical. Since we’re moving it down, there needs to be a minus/negative sign (-) in front of the number. Make sure Preview is checked so you can make certain that it's moving the way you want it to before you hit OK.
Notice how the bits that were sticking up above the artboard with the first shapes are now inside the artboard down below.
You can ignore the Distance and Angle fields, but make sure the Horizontal field is 0 px; this is very important. If there is even one pixel’s difference between the placement of elements on two corresponding edges, the pattern won’t turn out. So if you want to move or adjust matching elements, you have to select them both and move them together.
Let’s try one in the other direction. If you were working on the top and bottom edges before, this time place an element on the right or left. Here, I’ve placed an embellishment on the left edge. The process is the same: copy and Paste in Front, and use the Move dialog in the Transform menu.
This time, since we’re moving it horizontally, the Vertical field needs to be 0 px and the Horizontal field needs to be the width of our artboard, or 1000 px. (If we were moving it leftward instead of right, we would type in -1000 px).
Repeat this same method to fill in any other spots along the edges of your artboard that you think could use a little something. Mine turned out like this:
You've finished your pattern swatch—now it’s time to put it to the test!
First, create a square the exact size of your artboard. Use the Align panel (Windows > Align) to make sure it’s centered perfectly over your artboard, both vertically and horizontally. Also make sure that both the fill and stroke on the square are set as None, and then send it to the back (Object > Arrange > Send to Back).
This invisible square is needed to designate the boundaries of the "tile" that repeats to create your seamless pattern.
Open your Swatches panel. To create a seamless pattern, all you have to do is select everything on your artboard and drag that over to your Swatches panel. It will automatically create a swatch that allows you to apply your seamless pattern to any shape or background, no matter how large or small.
5. Apply Your New Pattern
Test out your pattern by drawing a shape and applying your pattern swatch to it, just as you would apply a color swatch. Look for gaps or anything that’s not working—you may need to go through a couple of rounds of tweaking what’s on your artboard and creating swatches to perfect the balance and visual effect of your pattern.
If you’d like to scale the pattern within a shape, you can go to Object > Transform > Scale. Uncheck Objects (which will scale the shape itself) and check Patterns. Then, you can control how many times the pattern repeats within your shape (and thus, how small or large it appears).
Job Well Done!
I hope you enjoyed learning some of the processes and shortcuts for creating a seamless pattern in Illustrator and had fun taking inspiration from the colorful, flowing forms of Hungarian folk art.
As always, feel free to share how your project turned out or ask questions in the comments section. Happy designing!